04 October 2015

On and around the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 9, from Näfels to Innerthal

Time: 6 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 1260 metres
Height loss: 775 metres

Näfels – Scheidegg - Innerthal

Anyone who has been following the progress of my wanderings around the Alpine Panorama Trail (and I know for sure that at least one person has been reading these posts) will remember that the last couple of stages have not been totally satisfying. After more than a month away from the trail, I am badly in need of a really good day out in the hills… and thankfully, today I got it: the walk from Näfels in the Glarnerland to Innerthal on the banks of the Wägitalersee is a superb one.

With a sunny Saturday and a rainy Sunday morning forecast, I turn my usual weekend pattern on its head and decide on Saturday for my mountain walk. It's a beautiful autumn morning; people are on their way to the shops and the market as I walk to the station, and the streets which are normally deserted when I set out for a hike are busy. From the train, I look out over a pastel landscape where trees throw long shadows across green fields. There is just a hint of mist, giving the light a very gentle quality. I am in an unusually serene frame of mind, and this soft October light fits perfectly well with it. As the train runs southwards along the Zürichsee, rays of sunshine bounce off the surface of the lake, its water ruffled by the Föhn wind.

I get off the train at Näfels, the endpoint of my previous stage, on a baking hot day at the end of August. From the station, it takes about a quarter of an hour to cross the little town to its far side, where the climb up out of the Linth valley begins. An easy, stony path zigzags up through woods, not so steep as to be tiring, but steep enough to quickly gain altitude. Leaves flutter down from the trees above my head, reminding me that this is autumn and that the mountains will soon be locking down for winter. I am glad of this sunny day, as I very much went to get this stage and the next one out of the way before more wintry weather arrives: afterwards, there will be a series of lower level stages that I will be able to do even if there is snow.

At a junction marked on the map as Brändliboden, I leave the main path that heads up towards the Obersee and strike off to the right, up a much narrower path. Although easy enough to follow, this path is somewhat overgrown and looks like it probably does not see a huge number of walkers. Just below 800 metres, there is a lake marked on the map, the Haslensee. I divert from the path to have a look at it, nestling in a little hollow… but the lake is completely dried up. I wonder if it fills up with water in spring, or if it has simply given up being a lake for good. At the chalet of Brändlen, 886 m, a first break in the forest gives me a long view up towards the Schwändlital valley, which I will be following eastwards today. Big clouds are building up over the mountains to the west, and I hope that the Föhn will hold the rain at bay for long enough. 

The Haslensee is no longer operating as a lake...
The forest is very peaceful; I only really notice this when I slip on a stone, and the noise frightens a large bird which must have been in a tree just above my head. It flaps off noisily in a panic, squawking at me from a safe distance up above. A little further on, in a field, three calves are lying on the path. Two of them take no notice as I walk past, but the third one panics and sets off ahead of me until it finds its progress blocked by a fence, at which point the poor thing almost falls off the path and down the slope to the left in its eagerness to get away. I come to a junction with a little road, which I have to follow for a couple of hundred metres. The road is liberally covered with smelly, fresh cowpats, suggesting that the cows have been very recently brought down from their summer pastures to spend winter in the valley below. A young couple on mountain bikes come up the hill towards me; they are the only other people I will see during the first four hours of this walk. They ask me for directions to a place I have never heard of, but at least I am able to lend them my map so that they can work out which way to go.

At the little Alpine farm of Eggberg, 1084 m, I reach the upper limit of the forest. The farmyard is full of hens, which seems quite appropriate given the name of the place, while sheep graze in the surrounding fields. The view southwards is dominated by the huge, craggy mass of the Rautispitz, while away to the east, a wide and rather cloudy panorama opens up, dominated by the receding Mürchtenstock and the Fronalpstock above the Glarus valley.

Eggberg and the Rautispitz
Now begins the best part of the walk. I climb up above Eggberg onto a broad, rounded ridge which runs westwards between two valleys, gently climbing. Underfoot, the grass is stiff and springy, and I almost bounce uphill towards the little summit of the Boggenhöhli, 1259 m. The autumn colours are stunning as I continue to a point marked on the map as Boggenmoor. I wonder if the Boggen part of the name is in any way related to the English word bog: while not really boggy, the ground underfoot is certainly quite damp and spongy in places. The damp hollows are full of grass that has already veered to a yellowy-orange colour, making for a marvellous foreground to the rocky summits in the distance. 

Autumn colors at Boggenmoor
It is half past twelve, time for a spot of lunch. Sometimes it's not easy to find the ideal picnic spot; today the problem is the opposite: there are perfect spots everywhere, each with a better view than the previous one. I settle on an east-facing slope at about 1300 metres, with a view that would be difficult to beat. In the foreground, grassy pastures run down from left to right, dotted here and there with farmhouses and barns. A like of trees runs down the crest of a ridge; most of them are still-green conifers, but a little group of deciduous trees in the middle has turned bright yellow and offers a lovely contrast. Behind this colourful foreground, the walls of the mountains beyond the Linth valley rise up in multiple shades of grey. I have made leek and potato soup to accompany my sandwiches, but it doesn't quite match up to my fantastic lentil soup of two weekends ago: when warming it up this morning, it seemed a bit underseasoned, so I dumped in a good whack of salt and pepper… too much in fact, as now the soup is a little bit too salty. The sun is warm, the grass is soft, and I lay back for what may well be the last siesta of the summer: the whole thing is just as it should be. 

A perfect spot for lunch
At half past one I set off again. I would happily have stayed longer here, but I still have three and a half hours' walking to do. The path continues along the crest of the grassy ridge that I have been following since Eggberg. Ahead though, the way is blocked by the vertical cliffs of the Bärensolspitz; the grassy ridge comes to and end and the path starts to descend into the Schwändlital on its northern side. Up ahead, behind a foreground of long shadows and blazing autumn foliage, I can now see the Scheidegg, the pass which will be the highest point of today's walk. A short stretch in a very dark, dense forest beneath looming cliffs offers a sharp contrast after all the wide views of the last two hours. A large, black cave is visible up above to the left, and I hear the sound of some large animal or other crashing about up there: a chamois maybe. I move on quickly, just in case it's a bear, or a troll, or something like that.

The grassy ridge ends at the base of the Bärensolspitz's cliffs, and the path drops down to the right
Looking ahead towards the Scheidegg pass

I emerge again from the forest at Büelen, 1263 m, in the bottom of the Schwändlital. The path runs alongside a little trickle of a stream, then joins a farm track whose surface is hard-baked earth. There is a pungent smell of cow here, but no animals are to be seen. This upper end of the Schwändlital is a lonely place: the cows have gone for the winter, the electric fences have been taken down and the valley has gone into hibernation until next spring. The path skirts round the edge of a marshy area marked on the map as Gross Moos: anywhere in Switzerland, the word Moos in a place name is a good indication that walking boots will probably end up getting muddy, but on this occasion, a good farm track keeps to drier ground and avoids the marshes. I pass a solitary woman walking in the other direction, the first person I have seen since Näfels.

The Scheidegg from Gross Moos
At Hinter Schwändli, the last farm in the valley, a man is loading up a car; it looks like he too is closing his place down in preparation for the winter. Here begins the final 130 metres of climbing up to the Scheidegg. Almost immediately, the path becomes indistinct and the waymarking almost non-existent. At the same time, the ground starts to get very boggy indeed: the Swiss German word Scheidegg means a watershed, and this particular Scheidegg seems to have been shedding more than its fair share of water. A footbridge crosses the stream that flows down from the pass, but it has seen better days: one of the planks from which the bridge is made has a massive hole in the middle, and I prefer to scramble down into the stream and out the other side, rather than trusting my weight on the rotten wood. The final climb to the pass is neither very long nor very steep, but the ground (or lack of) underfoot makes it quite a struggle. I wade up through browny-yellow grass that is at best knee-high, waist-high in places. Below the grass, and largely invisible, is a mixture of mud, water and moss: in places, it bears my weight without any problem; in others, I find myself sinking in and have to haul myself free. And this is at the end of a long, hot, dry summer… I shudder to think what the Scheidegg would be like after a couple of weeks of heavy rain! Maybe this explains why the route over the pass (1431 metres at its highest point) is so little walked despite the magnificent scenery, and why it does not seem to feature on any Swiss hiking websites.

Looking back from the Scheidegg. It looks harmless enough, but all the yellowish stuff is knee-high grass on a bed of mud and water
The Schwyz side of the pass is equally muddy at first, but soon the path leaves the valley to fall away eastwards, and runs horizontally across its southern flank, beneath the white cliffs of the Tierberg and the Bockmattli. Up ahead, the unmistakable shape of the Grosser Mythen appears in the far distance; it's a reminder than I am leaving the unknown, exotic lands of eastern Switzerland behind and am heading for home territory. The path drops down to an isolated house at Trepsenalp, 1352 m, then skirts horizontally round the side of a deep valley before climbing gently up to the saddle of Schwarzenegg, at an altitude of 1379 metres. Here, for the first time today, I see significant numbers of other walkers. This is the gateway to the Bockmattli and the other peaks of the eastern side of the Wägital, and must be a popular spot for a rest on the way up or down.

Schwarzenegg and the Bockmattli

From here, it's downhill all the way. Very soon after leaving Schwarzenegg, the dark blue Wägitalersee appears down below, filling the bottom of its valley. Man-made it may well be, but nothing can detract from the beauty of the lake, surrounded by dark, high mountains, below which green, sunlit meadows run down to the water's edge. A steep and rather slippery path cuts down the hillside through sun-drenched woodland. With the sun in my eyes and the constant changing of light and dark patches, it's an absolute miracle that I make it down without falling over, but eventually, at about 1100 metres, I come out of the woods and the path becomes a little road. The remainder of the walk is a gentle descent along this lane, with the whole of the Wägitalersee stretching out ahead of me. The fields to either side of the road are full of a noisy concert of cowbells, just to add another layer of perfection to an already perfect scene. The only slight shame is that with the sun more or less directly opposite, it is not easy to get a decent photo of the lake. 

The Wägitalersee

I reach the tiny village of Innerthal, at the northern end of the lake. It is 16:55 and the next bus leaves at 16:59, a fitting final touch for what has probably been the best day's walking that I have done in Switzerland this year. If the weather holds, the next stage will take me from Innerthal over into the Sihltal and to Einsiedeln, where I will once again pick up the official route of the Alpine Panorama Trail.

20 September 2015

An autumn walk to the Weissenstein

Time: 5.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 1245 metres
Height loss: 450 metres

Balsthal – Oberbalmberg – Weissenstein

Much as I feel the need to get up into the Alps this weekend, a rather gloomy weather forecast for the mountains of central Switzerland forces me further north and west, where the outlook is more favourable. Putting my cross-country journey on hold for a bit longer, I head for the Jura where, if nothing else, I should be able to enjoy some sunshine and some nice autumn colours. Certainly as far as the weather is concerned, it proves to be a good choice: I leave Lucerne under grey skies and drizzle, but by the time the train has got to Olten, half an hour further north, the sun is doing its best to break through and the sky is clearing fast.

The most strenuous part of the day's walking comes in the first hour. From the station at Thalbrücke on the outskirts of Balsthal, I follow a lane which soon becomes a broad, stony forest track that zigzags gently uphill. After a few bends, a much steeper, muddy path breaks off to the right, angling much more directly up the hillside and cutting out the wide loops of the track. This initial climb is pretty much devoid of interest, being entirely in dense forest with no views at all. It does, however, have the advantage of enabling me to gain altitude quickly: when the path finally emerges from the forest at an altitude of 1,000 metres, I am amazed to see that I have climbed 520 metres in exactly one hour. Over the last three weeks with no walking, I could almost feel the fitness gained during my summer holiday draining away, but it seems that all is not yet lost.

Leaving the trees behind, at least temporarily, I continue past the open but deserted farm restaurant at Schwengimatt, then more gently uphill to a saddle where, for the first time, the view opens up to the south and west, across the Swiss Plateau down below. Although there is plenty of blue sky above, the sun seems to be avoiding the clear patches, and has taken up permanent residence behind the few remaining bits of cloud, to the detriment of the quality of light. Now begins the long ridge walk that will eventually bring me to the Weissenstein, whose silvery grey limestone cliffs dominate the town of Solothurn and give the hill its name. 

Clouds above Schwengimatt
A pretty path leads me through grassy glades, then narrows and climbs up onto the ridge of the Breitflue. As is the case in all of this part of the Jura, the ridge drops away in vertical cliffs on its south side, while the northern side slopes away more gently. Curiously, in the Neuchâtel Jura a bit further westwards, it's exactly the opposite: the ridges are precipitous on their northern side, but gentler to the south. Many trees on the ridge top are showing signs of lightning damage; they must get some frightening thunderstorms up here! Although the ridge is wooded, there are plenty of breaks in the trees, through which the view southwards is attractively framed. Autumn has not advanced as far as I would have expected and the trees are still largely green; however, occasional rays of sunlight catch leaves that have already turned yellow or orange, making for some most attractive scenery and compensating for the lack of wider views. Less attractive is the sudden appearance of a high wire fence to the right of the path, apparently protecting some kind of military facility. And now, having climbed up to a height of 1232 metres, the path immediately plunges down steeply below vertical cliffs, losing 150 metres of altitude in the space of ten minutes. 

Autumn colours
  The noise of many cowbells getting closer and closer tells me that the end of the forest cannot be far away and, below the farm of Hinteregg, I finally come out again into open pastureland again. A good thing too, as it is lunchtime and I'm feeling hungry. Despite the rain of the last few days, the grass is dry and I manage to find a nice spot to sit down on the grassy slopes overlooking the path, just below the edge of the forest. There is a great view southwards from here, looking away across the Plateau to the dark, rising hills of the Napf range above the Emmental. No doubt in clear weather, the Alps would also be visible from here, but today the mountains on the horizon are still completely covered in cloud, justifying my decision to come further north. In the foreground, the silvery Aare river snakes its way across the Plateau, heading eastwards for a future meeting with the Reuss, the Limmat and ultimately the Rhine. This foreground landscape surprises me: travelling across the Plateau by train or car, the predominant impression is of light industry interspersed with market gardening. But seen from my vantage point 800 metres up above, it's amazing just how much of this flat country is covered by trees – I would estimate more than half of it. To fit with the season, I have made my first soup of the autumn, and a particularly successful soup it is as well, a delicious mixture of lentils, carrots and onions. Not everything about autumn and winter hiking is good, but homemade soup most definitely is!

Before going on, I allow myself a twenty-minute siesta under what has become a strong, warm sun. The strength of it even prompts me to apply some sun cream… at which point the sun disappears back behind the clouds, in a clear display of insolence. From here, there is a choice of two paths: one goes up over the long ridge of the Schattenberg (Mountain of Shadow, which sounds like something out of Tolkien), while the other skirts the base of the ridge on its gentle northern side. I opt for the ridge walk, as the valley route looks like it may be predominantly on farm access roads. As I climb up onto the ridge, people are sitting beside the path preparing a torrée, a traditional, outdoor autumn dish in these parts. You make a fire, wrap a special kind of sausage in dampened newspaper, then cook it in the embers of the fire.

To be honest, the valley route round the Schattenberg may have been a better option, as at least there may have been some views. For the next hour and a bit, I follow a narrow path that runs just below the crest of the ridge on its northern side, always in thick forest. The only views are offered by the huge gullies that occasionally open up on the southern side of the ridge; gullies down which you would definitely not want to fall, but which give fleeting glimpses of fields and villages down below (a special mention for the wonderfully named Oberbipp and Niederbipp). The path passes below high, smooth cliffs: in one place, I come across a pair of rock climbers deep in conversation. One of them is dangling from a rope about four metres off the ground, while his partner holds the other end taut to prevent him from a sudden descent to earth. It seems an odd place to choose for a long conversation about the weather (or football, beer, or whatever); personally I would be worried about the rope breaking and would want to get down as quickly as possible!

Steep gullies give occasional views to the south
Just before the farm of Hinteres Hofbergli, I manage to break free from the forest once again. The sun has finally managed to get the upper hand for good and, given that it is half past three on a September afternoon, the light suddenly improves as its rays hit the trees and the cliffs from a fairly low angle. Now the Weissenstein appears up ahead, although seen from here it is anything but white, with its tree-covered eastern slopes silhouetted against the lowering sun. I climb up to another saddle at Niederwiler Stierenberg, 1175 metres, then follow a broad track down towards Oberbalmberg. Here, I catch up with a large group of families who are walking what appear to be llamas… except for the last one in the group, which even I know is a donkey. At the front of the group, a woman is wearing a fleece marked "Balmberg Alpaca Trekking", so maybe they were alpacas rather than llamas. But it begs the question: how do you trek with a llama (or an alpaca)? Is it like pony trekking where children get taken for a ride sitting on a grumpy animal, or do you just take a bunch of llamas for a walk in the mountains?

Near Hinter Hofbergli
I come to Oberbalmberg, altitude 1078 metres, where a road crosses the ridge. When I was last here about ten years ago, the place was quiet and dead, with nothing here but a bus stop and a closed hotel. Now though, Oberbalmberg is buzzing with life, and I wonder why. Everywhere there is the sound of children shouting, laughing, shrieking. And the noise is coming from up in the trees… for here is a very large example of those adventure parks where children of all ages from 7 to 77 can frighten themselves and their parents to death by swinging from tree to tree across ropeways, rope ladders and various other instruments of torture. I tried it once and I fell off: never again, the embarrassment of dangling at the end of a rope, 10 metres from the ground, and being pointed at by half of the office was just too much J.

Leaving Oberbalmberg, I somehow miss the path that goes up over the highest point of the Weissenstein. I consider going back, but it doesn't really matter, I have done this bit of the walk before, and it would certainly mean me missing a train by a few minutes and having to wait an hour for the next one. Instead, I take the more direct route which climbs gently up the northern side of the hill, alongside pastures where black cows are looking after still very small calves. Another section in thick forest, a long avenue of trees and finally, at half past four, I reach the Kurhaus Weissenstein. I consider having a beer here, but decide to take the cable car down to the station at Oberdorf and have one there, as I am not sure of the train times. The cable car is ultra-modern, having replaced an antiquated sideways-facing chairlift only very recently.

I reach Oberdorf, discover that I have half an hour to wait for the train… and that the station is in the middle of nowhere, with no beer in sight. It's a cruel end to a walk which has done me good physically, but which has too many long sections in the forest to really live up to expectations.

30 August 2015

On and around the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 8, from Mühlehorn to Näfels

Time: 3 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 520 metres
Height loss: 510 metres

Mühlehorn – Obstalden – Filzbach - Näfels

While not the most exciting walk I have ever done, this short stage at least has the merit of being more interesting than the previous one, and consequently of getting me back into a better frame of mind regarding my Alpine Panorama Trail project. It’s a hot, sunny day, the kind of day when really I should be getting up above 2,000 metres and doing some serious mountain stuff, but I have a ticket for a concert in Lucerne at 18:30 and will need to get back in plenty of time to get showered and changed, hence the deliberate decision to limit myself to a short walk.

Lacking the motivation to get up earlier than 7:30, I don’t make it to Mühlehorn until quite late into the morning. The heat hits me as soon as I leave the air-conditioned cocoon of the train: 32 degrees are forecast for what, the newspapers happily inform me, will be the last weekend of summer weather. One more would have been nice…

Pretty much all of the day’s climbing is done in the first 45 minutes’ walking. Up through the narrow lanes of the village, between houses whose gardens are colourful with flowers in front of the blue-green backdrop of the lake. The traffic noise of the previous stage is noticeable by its absence; the motorway down below has disappeared into a long tunnel. Above the last houses, I continue steeply up a forest path that soon has me drenched in sweat; the heat is really quite extreme. It’s not long though before the gradient becomes easier, as I reach the upper end of the belt of woodland and head across fields to the hamlet of Walenguflen, at a modest altitude of 683 metres.

At the edge of the forest near Walengufeln
In its description of this walk, the Rother guidebook notes that it is not recommended for anyone who is scared of dogs, which suggests to me that the path probably passes through numerous farmyards. As I approach the scattered houses of Walenguflen, a dog does indeed start barking furiously, but remains invisible. Each time the dog barks, it is answered by the crowing of a cockerel, also unseen. In fact, the only visible sign of animal life is a grey stripy cat, which sits in the shade in front of one of the houses and looks at me in a totally uninterested way as I walk past. A little further on, another dog barks from another house: this one is in the garden in front of the house and would clearly love to have a go at my legs. Frustratingly for the dog – and luckily for me - it is attached to a chain, and can do no more than exhaust itself while trying to get free.

As I follow the narrow lane westwards from Walenguflen, I hear a shout of "Achtung!" behind me, and half expect to see a pack of unchained farm dogs heading my way. But the warning shout comes from the first of a group of about fifteen mountain bikers – mostly children – who are hurtling down the lane towards me. I move aside onto the grass verge… but several of the kids have decided to go for an adventurous approach to their bike ride, and are also off the road rather than on it. Somehow the all manage to miss me, and disappear off down the hill. Two minutes later, at a point where my path branches off left from the road beside a house, I see the bikers toiling back up the hill again, much, much slower and less carefree now… they missed the turning. I smile inwardly as they pass me again, at a much more sedate pace now. The grassy path leads me pleasantly on towards the village of Obstalden. On the minor road that runs parallel to the path lower down the hillside, a procession of about 15 vintage cars of different shapes and sizes, mostly open topped, chugs slowly past.

The Dorfbrunnen(village fountain) in Obstalden
Obstalden is a pretty little place, compactly grouped around its church tower and a village square with a large drinking fountain. I refill my bottles, replacing this morning's now warm tap water with much colder water from the fountain. The main street has many attractive old houses; on a fence beside one of them, a municipal notice informs passers-by that anyone found piling snow up against the wall of the house or the fence will be fined 500 francs. Luckily, the temperature is up in the thirties, so any temptation to break the law by chucking a few shovelfuls of snow against the house is soon snuffed out. I continue along a minor road lined with more houses, every one of whose garden seems to be competing with its neighbours for the number of different types and colours of flowers on display. Obstalden leaves me with a very nice impression, as the road turns to another grassy path that runs horizontally across the hillside, with lovely views across the lake to the mountains in the distance. A tourist information sign tells me that this very agreeable path has been in use since Roman times.

Obstalden and the Walensee
As I reach the first houses of Filzbach, the next village, I get my most challenging doggy encounter of the day. From nowhere, two metres in front of me, a huge St. Bernard emerges from a garden gate and stands in the middle of the path, very obviously protecting its garden and asking me what I'm going to do about it. I move ahead slowly, making sure not to look the dog in the eyes, and also making sure that I keep it between the garden and myself. It moves closer to me and, as I pass it, gives one very loud and very deep WOOF… then, apparently satisfied that it has won the game, it lets me go, standing there and looking at me just in case I change my mind.

The Walensee seen from between Obstalden and Filzbach
Filzbach, though pleasant enough, is strung out along the roadside and does not have quite the character of Obstalden. I arrive there just as the clock on top of the school building starts to strike midday. A sign on the wall of a building offers "Adventure Minigolf". I wonder what the difference is between this and normal minigolf… do you do it while swinging from tree to tree or abseiling down vertical cliffs, I wonder? The vintage cars go past again in the other direction; this time, their ranks have been joined by a very large, white Rolls-Royce and a very flashy, green and black Porsche which does not look remotely vintage, and whose driver clearly just wants to show off. I have to walk for a good kilometre along the road before another path drops away to the right, leading down the hillside into woodland. 

Although I have been walking for barely two hours, it feels like lunchtime. The map seems to show a likely looking clearing about ten minutes ahead, but when the path emerges from the woods, the clearing turns out to be a scrubby, untidy field full of cowpats. One very large, dark grey cow has decided to stand in the middle of the path, and there is no way of skirting around it. Will it be friendly, or is it going to want to protect the three calves that are further down the field? I approach it slowly, tell it that it's a nice cow (which I'm sure it is), and it lets me pass within touching distance, not moving an inch but not showing any signs of aggressivity either. Eventually I climb up onto an embankment above the path, where I find a spot that has no view but at least offers plenty of shade. Rather than my usual, lazy sandwich option, I have prepared a salad of lentils, sausage and tomatoes, which makes a nice accompaniment to a hunk of Apenzeller cheese. The motorway must have come out of its tunnel, because suddenly that annoying background traffic noise is back.

I set off again and, within five minutes, come to what would have been a much nicer place to stop and eat: a large, grassy, cowless clearing with, in its centre, a huge tree which seems to have decided that autumn is already here, as its leaves have already turned yellowish-orange. The path continues for a while through thick forest, briefly re-joins the road, then forks off again to the right and begins to descend more steeply.

Signs of autumn in the Brittenwald below Filzbach
New views open up now: the Churfirsten, which have been the predominant mountains of the last three or four stages, disappear for good as the path turns into the valley of the Glarnerland. Up ahead now, the main feature is the Rautispitz above Näfels while, further away, the 2900-metre Glärnisch is the highest mountain seen so far since the start of the walk on the shores of Lake Constance. Northwards, there is a long view along the industrial Linth plain, which I have been desperately trying to avoid for the last three stages. The path winds pretty down beside a stream; dry and dusty, I slip and almost fall several times as loose pebbles give way beneath my feet. Eventually I reach the bottom, and emerge onto the path that runs along the east bank of the canalised Linth river. The last half hour of the walk follows the river in a straight line upstream; it could be considered monotonous were it not for the occasional diverting sights. Just in front of me, a large heron appears suddenly from the grass and flies off above the river. A rubber dinghy with a family in it floats towards me, the father deliberately seeking out the patches of (very minor) white water, the children shouting in mock fear as the boat splashes its way off downstream. The heat is intense, and I am quite glad that I don't have to go any further when I reach the railway station at Näfels. Up above the little town, steep slopes lead away to westward-running valleys: this is where I will be heading for the next stage of my walk. 

23 August 2015

On and around the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 7, from Walenstadt to Mühlehorn

Time: 4.25 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 785 metres
Height loss: 780 metres

Walenstadt – Oberterzen – Quarten – Murg - Mühlehorn

After two weeks away on a wonderful hiking holiday in the Tyrol and the Dolomites, this weekend I am back on my Lake Constance to Lake Geneva project. Having well and truly deviated from the official national route No. 3, I am now faced with two shortish stages along the south side of the Walensee, before two more mountainous stages will take me over to the Wägital and Sihltal valleys, and so on to Einsiedeln to re-join the official route.

It's a pleasantly warm morning as I catch the train to Walenstadt, but you can see from the sky that it's not going to last. The dominant blue is broken up by patches of torn, grey cloud, dislocated from some larger nebulous mass by winds at altitude. The Föhn is blowing and rain is forecast for the afternoon and for tomorrow, before another spell of hot weather begins on Tuesday.

The walk does not start in the most auspicious way: tarred lanes, shabby farm buildings, the constant noise of a busy motorway and military keep-out signs accompany me as I leave the lakeside town. Walenstadt is a garrison town, and today there will be constant reminders of the fact as the path skirts, and sometimes crosses firing ranges, luckily not operating on an August Sunday. At the edge of a forest, there is a field of still small calves. One of the calves has somehow managed to get itself on the wrong side of the electrified fence, and is standing in the middle of the path, mooing plaintively at its companions in the field. One of them moos back in encouragement (or possibly it's taking the piss?); the others clearly could not give a damn… cow society reflecting humanity, I wonder…

The Walensee
I climb up through patchy forest, the morning still polluted audibly by the noise of the motorway and visually by high-voltage power lines. This side of the Walensee has clearly lost out in the environmental stakes, with electricity, road and rail links all concentrated in a narrow strip of flattish ground between lake and mountainside. The way becomes temporarily prettier as the gravel track gives way to a path that runs along the edge of the woods, and the noise diminishes as the motorway disappears into a tunnel away below. A signpost tells me to turn right, then another one confusingly tells me that this path doesn't go anywhere, and that path is only allowed to be used as a diversion when firing is going on at the range. 

After a couple of hours' not very inspiring walking, I reach the village of Oberterzen, halfway stage of a cable-car line from the lakeside up to the winter sports resort of Flumserberg. I make a mental note for another time: up there, beyond the top cable car station, there must be some nice walking country.

Meanwhile, as I try to find my way out of Oberterzen, I m confined to road walking: the path marked on my map leads into private property and no longer exists. At the roadside, a sign informs me that this is a mushroom preservation area, and that picking mushrooms is limited to 2 kilos per day per person… that sounds like an awful lot of mushrooms to me! I follow a twisty lane uphill; it's not unattractive but it's still road walking. I look for a suitable place for lunch, but all the fields are blocked off with electric fences, and in the end I resort to a roadside bench overlooking a tumbledown old barn with an unusual chimney. Another path marked on my map turns out not to exist in reality, and I am forced almost 200 metres higher along the lane, at which point I have to drop down again on a steep, gravelly path to the village of Quarten.

Quarten is a nice little place, less developed than Oberterzen, with extensive views across the lake to Quinten on the far bank. Whether there is any link between the Quarten – Quinten names or whether it is pure coincidence, I do not know.

Sadly, the remaining hour and a half of the walk is all on roads, and becomes progressively less attractive as I go on. I follow a lane downhill between green fields, until it eventually brings me to the lakeside village of Murg. If Quarten was pretty, Murg is ugly. Clearly a place with an industrial past, it is bisected by the railway in one direction, and by a river flowing over a bed of red rock in the other. Some of the old industrial buildings have been converted into flats (or "lofts" according to the signage); others stand empty waiting for a new lease of life. There are also quite a few terraced houses, clearly old workers' cottages, and it makes me wonder what industry exactly made this place tick a hundred years ago.

Now the path sticks close to the banks of the lake. I am passed by numerous cyclists, which makes me think that it would not have been a bad idea to do this leg of the walk by bike; an idea that I will try to remember if there are any similar stages further on. The lakeside path would be idyllic, were it not for the incessant noise of the motorway in my left ear and the occasional passing of trains, also in the same ear. Despite this, there are houses – presumably expensive ones – between the path and the lake. Top prize goes to one big house where, in addition to the noise pollution, there is the stink of a sewage treatment plant right next door, despite which there is a family sitting in the garden having a barbecue. How anyone could live in such a place defeats my imagination… but then I live next to a railway line where a train passes every 2 minutes, so maybe they just get used to the noise as I have. 

Looking across the Walensee to Quinten
The last kilometre before Mühlehorn is very unpleasant. The lakeside path is being rebuilt and is closed; a diversion is in place for cyclists, but walkers have drawn the short straw. I climb up above the railway, following the diversion signs, but then have to walk for a quarter of an hour along a main road with no pavement, sandwiched between a mountainside and metal crash barriers. I arrive back in Lucerne and emerge into pouring rain. Walking home from the station is only the second time this year that I have needed my rain gear… the other time was also walking home from the station! 

Not ideal for walkers...
  Clearly, the designers of national trail No. 3 were faced with a problem after reaching Amden: how to transition from the eastern Swiss Alps and the Churfirsten to central Switzerland without imposing at least one day of motorways, hard surfaces and lack of mountain scenery on walkers. Hopefully, the next leg over the Kerenzerberg to the Glarus valley will be more interesting. As for today: the Tyrol and the Dolomites, it most certainly wasn't.

Previous stage

26 July 2015

Pilatus again, with some unexpected challenges…

Time: 5.5 hours
Grading: T3+
Height gain: 1340 metres
Height loss: 950 metres

Eigenthal – Ober Lauelen - Klimsen – Pilatus – Klimsen – Fräkmüntegg

After our walk over the Chasseron a few weeks ago, my friend from Neuchâtel and I agreed that we should meet up again before we both went off for our summer holidays, with me organising something in the Lucerne area this time. The Pilatus seems an obvious choice, with it being so quickly accessible and offering so many different routes up and down.

The day starts with a mad dash to get the bus to Eigenthal. My friend’s train from Olten arrives four minutes late, meaning that we only have one minute to run to the bus, which inevitably is waiting at the furthest end of the bus station. We make it just as the driver is starting the engine; it was a very close thing.

At Eigenthal, where we get off the bus at 9:45, it’s pleasantly cool. The heatwave of the last few weeks has finally subsided, giving way to more changeable, rather windy weather, but still with perfect temperatures for walking. Rain is forecast for later in the day, but the satellite animation on the weather site seems to indicate that we should be OK until at least five in the afternoon, by which time we should have reached the post-hike beer stage of the day.

All very lush and green at the start of the walk
The walk starts gently uphill, with pretty views through openings in the trees down to the valley bottom and the hills on its far side. My friend is surprised by how green everything is here; in Neuchâtel, she tells me, everything has been parched brown for weeks now. Maybe there is just more general humidity in the air here; we certainly have not had much rain to speak of over the last month.

Beyond the saddle of Chraigütsch, the path begins to climb more steeply up onto the wooded ridge of the Höchberg. The views become rarer along this section, and each time there is an opening in the trees, the dark cliffs of the Pilatus up ahead have become closer. Bands of dark grey clouds are coming and going across the cliff face; there is a distinct possibility that we may find ourselves walking in fog higher up. We see few other walkers, but there are people here and there, off to the side of the path, looking for berries in the undergrowth. The path levels out for a while, drops down a bit, climbs a bit more, crosses a more open and marshy area where white cotton grass is blowing in the wind, then drops down to the attractively-situated Alpine farm of Ober Lauelen, at 1332 metres above sea level.

In the forest approaching Ober Lauelen
After Ober Lauelen, the character of what has so far been a gentle stroll changes dramatically. For the next hour, we climb very steeply up a narrow, sometimes slightly exposed path in the shadow of looming cliffs and scree slopes. I have done this part of the walk before, but the path is interesting and I am quite happy to walk it again. There are more people around now, many of whom are climbing faster than us. Being still a fair way off my full “summer fitness”, I am glad of the opportunity to rest which is offered by stopping to let others overtake us. Finally we make it to the saddle below the Klimsenhorn, with its whitewashed chapel and panoramic views down towards the lake… except that the constantly moving cloud never quite allows us to see the view in all its glory. We have climbed about 900 metres in a little more than two and a half hours, which is not bad going at all.

We have a slightly chilly lunch sitting on one of the wooden benches in front of the chapel. The sun has hidden itself behind the thickening cloud and it is quite windy here; for the first time in what seems like months, I put on a fleece… albeit only a very thin, lightweight one. With the renewed energy brought on by salami and sandwiches, we set off again for the final 200 metres to the top, up a broad path that zigzags steeply up through bands of shaly rock. As we near the top, we pass more and more people whose shoes and clothing are totally unadapted to the terrain; presumably tourists who have come up the mountain by train and decided to walk down “because it’s easier that way”. I wonder how many of them make it all the way down and how many give up and turn back after ten minutes.

Looking down on Lake Lucerne from the Klimsen saddle
We arrive at Pilatus-Kulm by a tunnel that has been dug into the rock, with large openings giving views that plunge steeply down the pastures below, with the town of Lucerne and the lake beyond. This tunnel ends abruptly, and rather disconcertingly, emerging into tourist paradise between a self-service restaurant and a band that is playing folksy Alpine tunes for the crowds.

Out in the fresh air again, we spend a pleasant half hour on the rather windy terrace of the Pilatus Kulm hotel, where every table is occupied by little groups of walkers huddled in fleeces, or by tourists who look like they wished they were also huddled in fleeces. I order an ice cream and am a bit shocked to pay 7 CHF for two balls of sorbet… but maybe I have unrealistic expectations, it's probably a bit unfair to compare Pilatus Kulm with the Italian ice-cream stall outside the office canteen, where the same thing costs only a quarter the price.

Now we have to decide how we go back down. There are all sorts of options available, ranging from the zero-effort cogwheel train to the full-blown 1600 metres of descent down to the lake at Alpnachstad. Been there, done that, my knees are still complaining, so I rule that one out immediately. In the end, we agree on a route that I have not done before, which will take us down to Fräkmüntegg, then eventually back to our starting point at Eigenthal. We retrace our steps back down to the Klimsen saddle and its chapel, and then set off down a stony path signposted to Fräkmüntegg.

For some reason, I expect this path to be easy… how wrong I am! At first, it is indeed easy enough, if not really comfortable underfoot. The path zigzags down beneath high, black cliffs, following the bottom of a steep scree gully. The scree is too big to run down, but not big enough to be stable underfoot, and, with the gradient consistently steep, progress is rather awkward. Up above on a rocky bluff, the pylon of the cable car that runs up from Fräkmüntegg to Pilatus Kulm seems to be standing at an insane angle, almost 45 degrees to the vertical at a guess. It looks impossible, but presumably this is the angle that gives the most resistance to the stress of the passing cabins which glide soundlessly overhead every five or six minutes.

We reach the bottom of the scree and slightly flatter ground, where I can see the path running harmlessly off eastwards across grassy slopes. It looks like we have reached easier ground… except that this is not our path! We reach a junction, where a signpost points us off in the opposite direction from the nicely enticing route that we have been looking at.

"We don't really want to do this, do we?"... one of the most exposed passages
Immediately, things become much more serious. Now following the western side of the valley, the path climbs up onto a rocky ledge which traverses above a stone-chocked dry stream bed. It is very narrow, somewhat exposed (although the drop is not very large), and there is nothing to hold on to except bushes. I take a couple of steps out onto the ledge, decide that I don't like it very much and reverse clumsily back onto more stable ground. But I have spotted a workaround: by scrambling down into the gully and out again on the other side, I can avoid the obstacle. Meanwhile, my friend skips across the ledge as though it was a football pitch. Two walkers arrive from the opposite direction and, expecting a reassuring answer, I ask them if there are any other exposed or difficult passages. I do not get the hoped-for answer: yes, says the man, there are; you have to do a bit of climbing, the worst bit is right at the end.

I give my friend an imploring, "we don't really want to do this, do we?" look. After all, if we get all the way to "the worst bit" and have to turn back, we will have wasted a lot of time and energy that could be spent enjoying a cold beer. But she does not seem to be very well trained in interpreting imploring looks (I will have to work on this), and says something like "Right, shall we give it a go?" To which there is not much to answer.

In the end, it turns out to be fun. There are indeed many exposed sections as the path, very narrow, twists its way down through bands of rock towards the pastures below, tantalizingly close but at the same time still a long way off. There are many places where we have to scramble down steep rocky steps of ten metres high or more. However, almost all the potentially dangerous places are well secured with fixed cables, and as I progress, I gradually get the hang of it. In places, I scramble down on my backside, in others it's easier to go down backwards, holding on to the cable and seeking out footholds below. My friend, who has sensibly taken the lead, goes down first and then, where necessary, tells me the best holds on which to place my feet. My long legs are a definite advantage, it has to be said. Even in these dry conditions, the rock is slippery, and I would definitely not advise anyone to try this path on a rainy day. It would also be much easier in the opposite direction, as all the most difficult parts would then be tackled uphill rather than down. By the time we come to a second, much more exposed ledge with no securing cable, I am well into my stride and am able to make the three or four exposed steps with only a little hesitation. 

The photo doesn't really do justice... this is almost vertical.

After almost an hour of intense concentration, my leg-muscles are starting to tremble, and I am still nervous about the inevitable "worst bit" that must still be to come. The path flattens out and disappears round a bend… surely this must be the terrible place, as we are almost down to the level of the fields. But no, around the bend there is a bench, and a place where people have clearly been barbecuing… and then the path runs out into gently sloping Alpine pastures, with the sound of Alphorns wafting over from the restaurant at Fräkmüntegg. The "worst bit" is behind us without us even having noticed it. I am, of course, extremely grateful towards my friend for persuading me not to turn back; it's the kind of route that I would never have attempted on my own and which, as a mostly solo walker, I do not get many opportunities to test myself against.

By the time we get to Fräkmüntegg, it is a quarter to four and the sky has turned dark. I reckon it will take us another hour and a half to get back to Eigenthal, and that we risk a) getting wet and b) missing the 17:15 bus. Getting wet would not really matter, but missing the bus would mean a very late arrival home for my Neuchâtel-based friend, so instead we join the long queue of tourists, walkers and families who are waiting for the gondola down to Kriens. We board the gondola just as the first spots of rain start to fall, travelling slowly down as mountain bikers labour up the gravelly roads beneath us. In Kriens we change to the number 1 bus, which brings us to Lucerne train station a perfect eight minutes before my friend's train is due to leave. It has been a day of good company and unexpected challenges, which I managed to overcome: an altogether rewarding day on the Pilatus.

Back on solid ground at Fräkmüntegg

12 July 2015

On and around the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 6, from Amden to Walenstadt

Time: 5.5 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 1080 metres
Height loss: 1560 metres

Amden – Betlis – Quinten - Walenstadt

At the end of my previous post, I said that the next few stages of the Alpine Panorama Trail did not really inspire me, and that I would be looking for alternative routes. The seeds of an idea are planted in my mind by a colleague who wants me to join her for a walk along the north side of the Walensee. It's a hike that I have done before, but I am happy to do it again, and it gives me a plan for the next few stages: a complete walk round the Walensee, then over to the Klöntal and onwards to the Muotatal, skirting round the Mythens and finally over the Rigi to rejoin the main route at Lucerne. It's not exactly the most direct route, and walking from Amden to Walenstadt will actually take me further away from my ultimate destination, but why not after all…

Another very hot day is forecast, and in order to have an early start without having to get up at the crack of dawn, we decide to go to Amden by car. It means we will have to get back there from Walenstadt by train and bus at the end of the walk, but we gain a good hour overall. My car appreciates the airing as well; it's only about the fourth time it has been allowed out of the garage since Christmas!

The Walensee walk is normally done from Weesen to Walenstadt or vice-versa, but so as to keep the continuity of my longer route, I insist on us starting from Amden, 500 metres higher up on the sunny, south-facing hillside above the lake. It means that the hike starts with a substantial descent, but it proves to be a good choice as the scenery is very pretty indeed. As we descend steeply, first on a minor road, then on grassy paths, we look out across foreground fields and red-roofed barns towards the higher hills on the far side of the lake, dominated by the 2441-metre Mürchtenstock. The path drops down into an unexpectedly deep gorge, crossing the stream at its bottom on a footbridge before climbing back up below dark, grey cliffs. Back out in the sunlight, the descent continues down a pretty path between dry-stone walls, an old mule track by the look of it, with time-worn, overgrown paving stones underfoot.

Looking across to the Mürchtenstock from Amden
A long section in woodland brings some welcome respite from the direct sunlight; it may only be ten in the morning but the temperature is already making fast progress towards the 30 degree mark. Occasional breaks in the trees open up vertiginous views down to the lake, 250 very steep metres below. The unexpected but unmistakable call of peacocks signals the presence of civilisation and the end of this long, steep descent. We emerge onto a little lane by a restaurant bearing the name of Paradiesli (little paradise): most appropriate given the tranquil setting and the lovely views. There are indeed peacocks in paradise; two of them, in a large compound across the lane from the restaurant.

Here we rejoin the main path that comes up from Weesen; the rest of the walk is familiar territory and already described on this site, so I will not go into great detail in describing it again. We make the short detour to the Seerenbachfälle, so impressive when I was last here two years ago and, I assure my friend, well worth the extra 15 minutes' walk. But we are disappointed: the falls have completely dried up, and only damp patches on the cliffs high above show where the water would have been rushing down were we not in the middle of a heatwave. The route is very popular; we pass a constant stream of walkers coming the other way, and are continually overtaking or being overtaken by others going in the same direction as us. Many of them look to be suffering from the heat, and look every bit as hot and sweaty as I feel. Others appear to be perfectly fresh, as though they had just stepped out of their morning shower; how they manage this in such hot conditions I have no idea… I just know it's unfair. 

The relative coolness of the shady sections is most welcome
Having dropped down from an altitude of 900 metres at Amden to 499 below the Seerenbach waterfall, the path now climbs, in fits and starts, back up to 600 metres, before dropping down to Quinten on the lakeside at 400. This descent is steep and rocky; the path picks its way between cliffs and slightly exposed in places though handrails and metal chains ensure that there would be no danger in the event of a slip.

We reach Quinten at lunchtime, having been walking for a little less than three hours. The tiny village, inaccessible except on foot or by boat, enjoys a particularly sunny location and has an almost Provençal feel to it, with palms and banana trees in the gardens, and hollyhocks growing up the walls of the houses and barns. We stop for a beer and a plate of cold meat at one of the two restaurants there, leaving again for the second half of the walk at half past twelve. For a while now, the path stays closer to the shore of the lake; occasionally climbing up a few dozen metres, then dropping back down to the lakeside again. From down below, the sound of people splashing in the water and the smell of grilling meat waft up. 

Now for the day's physical challenge: having descended one last time to the lakeside, the path begins the 400-metre climb up to Garadur and Engen. It's steep, I have warned my friend, remembering it having been a knee-crunching descent when doing the walk in the opposite direction. She has a tendency to walk fast and not to slow down when going uphill; in this heat, this is something that I cannot do, so I go in front and set a nice, slow pace. We have 400 metres to climb, it's going to take an hour. The path zigzags up through trees, occasionally breaking out into clearings which bring false hope that we have reached the top. After about 40 minutes we stop to drink and munch a few nuts, then continue up further zigzags until finally, exactly one hour after starting the climb, we reach open, flatter ground. Above us, the sheer, rocky faces of the Churfirsten rear hugely up into the blue sky. 

The Churfirsten seen from Engen
Having reached the heady altitude of 833 metres, the only way is down… this walk is very much about ups and downs. This last downhill stretch is a long one, all the way back down to lake level along a gravelly, not particularly interesting forest track. A bit more than two and a half hours after leaving Quinten, we make it to the beach at Walenstadt, where hundreds of people are sunbathing, swimming, barbecuing and drinking beer in the hot sun. It's a further 20 minutes' walk to the station, and to a welcome ice-cream while waiting for the train.

A short train ride to Ziegelbrücke, a perfect connection to the bus, and 40 minutes later we are back at Amden, our starting point. We drive back down to the valley and the motorway… the thermometer in the car tells us that the outside temperature is 31.5 degrees. Thankfully, it has been a largely shady walk!

05 July 2015

Too hot for the Faulhorn

Time: 3 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 570 metres
Height loss: 570 metres

Schynige Platte – Oberberghorn – Laucheren - Schynige Platte

I don't think I really realized how hot it was until Saturday. Leaving home early in the morning, working in air-conditioned offices and coming home to a shady, east-facing balcony in the evening, I had been spared from the worst of it. Until Saturday, when it suddenly hit me.

With an even hotter Sunday expected, the only way out seems to be upwards, and I look for a hike that will enable me to start from 2,000 metres or higher, with no physical effort needed to get to that starting altitude. The Faulhorn seems like a good option: the classic route – which I already walked some ten years ago – starts from just below 2,000 metres, then climbs in a not too strenuous manner up to the summit at 2,600. Surely at that kind of altitude, the temperature will be more bearable…

I get up very early, and by 7 o'clock am on the train. It's a long way to the walk's starting point at Schynige Platte though, and it's 10:30 before I am ready to start walking. Interlaken Ost station is crowded with Chinese and Japanese tourists, but strangely, none of them change to the Schynige Platte train at Wilderswil. Pretty much everyone on the little cogwheel train, which crawls up the mountainside at walking pace, is either American, British, Swiss or French. It's really odd how, in the same valley, whole nations of tourists flock to certain sights, but totally ignore others that are only a few miles away.

The Lauterbrunnen valley seen from Schynige Platte
The walk starts easily enough. From the station at Schynige Platte, the path, marked as "Panoramaweg", initially runs round the northern side of a rocky tower, the Gumihorn. In the shade below the cliffs, the heat is very definitely bearable; I seem to have made a good choice. Even so, I still think that the two trail-runners who puff and pant past me are slightly mad… And it's not long before I begin to question my own sanity, as the path leaves the shade and begins to climb simultaneously. It is very, very hot indeed.

I reach the day's first mini-summit, marked on the map as Tuba and on the signposts as Daube. Either way, its altitude is 2067 metres, and the view in all directions is superb. To the north, the mountain drops away precipitously to the turquoise waters of the Brienzersee. Southwards and eastwards things are less abrupt, with undulating green pastures that draw the eye towards the most majestic of horizons: Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau, Schreckhorn are all lined up there, the view only marginally spoiled by a fairly thick heat haze. To the west, the Niesen and Stockhorn poke up in the distance like long-lost, half-forgotten friends: it's been a long time since I was in this part of the country.

From Tuba, the path heads off north-eastwards down a fairly narrow ridge. I would not call it vertiginous by any means, but there is a drop on both sides, and the drop to the left is vertical. However, the path keeps slightly below the crest of the ridge on the somewhat gentler southern side. Now, the next objective appears; the rocky, seemingly unassailable Oberberghorn. The closer it gets, the more intimidating it looks, until all is revealed… there are stairs to the top! Leaving the main path, I zigzag up a stony slope to the foot of a great cleft in the face of the mountain. Three flights of steep wooden stairs have been built into this cleft, enabling mere walkers like me to reach the 2,069-metre summit above. A German woman is coming down the stairs very slowly, clearly terrified, being either encouraged or pestered by her companion, according to your point of view. And although the stairs are no steeper than those leading to the dormitory of many an Alpine Club hut, an added challenge is given by the fact that the wooden handrails have become separated from their posts, and wobble wildly when I try to use them to haul myself up. They certainly would not be of much help if used to try to arrest a fall… someone needs to get up to the Oberberghorn with a hammer and nails!

The apparently unassailable Oberberghorn
The stairs exhaust me, and I reach the summit drained of energy; the heat is really taking its toll. I have brought three litres of water with me, and after an hour's walking have already made good progress in terms of emptying the first 1.5 litre bottle. I go back down the stairs and zigzags to the main path, which now continues more or less level, climbing gently along the flank of a lovely little valley. The view south-westwards is particularly nice here, looking out across a carpet of yellow flowers, then over the roofs of the farm buildings of Oberberg to the mighty peaks on the horizon.

Looking back to the Oberberghorn and onwards to the south-west
Another staircase, solid metal this time, brings me to a junction of several paths at Laucheren. Here, a signpost tells me that it is three and a half hours to the Faulhorn, and five hours to the cable car station at First, the endpoint of the walk. It's already midday; the panoramic detour to the Tuba and Oberberghorn have cost me an hour, and I start to resign myself to the fact that I will not finish the walk. It would mean pushing myself to be sure of not missing the last cable car, and frankly, in these conditions, I am physically not capable of increasing my pace. Every little uphill section is sweaty torture; my body feels heavy, like a dead weight.

There are numerous walkers on the path, and everywhere, groups of people are seeking out the tiniest bush or overhand, desperately looking for half a square metre of shade to eat their lunch. I carry on for a bit, pass a little saddle where a big group of English-speaking walkers is eating, then drop down into a stony valley and struggle back up again to a notch in the next ridge, marked on the map as Güwtürli, 2028 m. Here, there is a little bit of shade; not enough to stretch out in, but at least sufficient for me to eat my lunch leaning against a rock, in the company of two other walkers who were on the same train as me up from Wilderswil. All the time, as I eat, walkers continue to pass by in twos, threes and bigger groups, including some very young children. They all seem less affected by the heat than me.

Two views of the Schreckhorn
I finish eating at one o'clock, and decide to turn back. Apart from anything else, the sky is starting to take on an ominous, greyish-purple colour, and the grey is advancing very fast. The last thing I want is to have to force the pace to escape from a thunderstorm, and I suspect that those who have continued for the full five hours will end up wet. I retrace my steps to Laucheren, then take the more direct, lower level path back to Schnynige Platte, which I reach at about a quarter to three. I have just missed a train, which gives me a good excuse for a refreshing beer in the shade while waiting for the next one. By the time I get home, I will have drunk a total of three and a half litres without needing to pass water… why can't it be like that in the pub in the evening?

As the train leaves for its slow journey back to the valley, it starts to rain. The shower doesn't last long, but everyone in the train looks at it in wonder, as though a miracle has happened. I get talking to an English couple, who are camping in Interlaken. They arrived here on the first day of the heatwave, totally unequipped for it, having packed all the usual things that you would pack for early summer hiking at 2,500 metres: fleeces, waterproofs, warm jackets and so on.

The Bernese royal family: Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau
Back at Interlaken Ost, where I have to wait half an hour between trains, a large group of about 20 Japanese tourists is being made by their tour guide to line up on the platform, two by two, like primary school children. One of the group, a young woman, is wearing a T-shirt that bears the message "MERRY CHRISTMAS". On what must be the hottest day for ten years, this must surely qualify as ironic humour… and I have to feel sorry for Santa, with his heavy fur coat and bushy beard!